They're All Cards
by Ron Steiner
Some of the best college athletes in the world are competing thousands of miles from home in Louisville, where they see a part of America they may never have imagined.

And in the process they're changing the course of Cardinal sports in big ways.

"To most international students, particularly those from former Communist-bloc countries that recently became free nations, attending college in the United States on a scholarship is a dream come true," says U of L volleyball coach Leonid Yelin, who has carefully blended U.S. athletes with some of the best from Russia, Croatia and China. He also has won Conference USA regular-season or tournament titles in three of the past four seasons.

"For many young people from overseas, the America they find on arriving here is much different from the one they've been told about. Most foreign students know about New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Miami. But as we tell them, in Kentucky you see the real America," Yelin adds.

Recruiting foreign-born student athletes is a relatively new effort for U of L, but it's nothing new to college athletics.

Back in the 1960s, stars from Africa made schools in Texas and on the West Coast into track and field meccas, while in the '70s Nigerian stars turned schools like Clemson into soccer powers. In the 1980s, basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon found his way to the University of Houston and went on to international fame and fortune.

These days, as top athletes worldwide take virtual campus tours on the Internet or watch global events on satellite television, it's an exception if your college basketball team-or your soccer, tennis, golf or track team‹does not include at least one foreign-born player.

The motivation for the Cardinal programs to invest in international athletes may be primarily to accelerate U of L's mission of building nationally competitive programs in all of its 21 sports. But evidence suggests there's much more to be gained by both the students and the university community.

"These foreign-born students will be great ambassadors for America," explains Yelin, who gave up a successful coaching career in the former Soviet Union to live in the United States. He first worked in retail stores in Miami before a chance meeting landed him a job with a volleyball club. That, in turn, led to the head coaching position at Barry University where Yelin developed a nationally recognized championship program.

"These young people will be able to go back home and tell their friends and families what America is really like," Yelin says. "They will have very helpful experiences in sports, but the other experiences they share with us may be even more important."

Yelin thinks playing alongside international players benefits the American students, too. "It's good for the Americans to gain a better understanding of what they have and how fortunate they are to play sports and get their education in the U.S," he explains. "These are life's lessons."

As U of L increasingly recruits international prospects, it's also creating the foundation for a long-term relationship with top athletes around the world.

In May, women's basketball coach Martin Clapp announced the signing of 6-foot-3-inch post player Natasha Zacharova, a native of Moscow who played junior college basketball at Central Florida Community College. The basketball staff handled virtually all of the recruiting, but they didn't miss the fact that Yelin and his team could help.

"During her visit Natasha spent time with two of our volleyball players who grew up in Moscow, and of course that's where I lived at one time," explains Yelin. "Being able to talk about U of L with players from your own hometown helps. Knowing you won't be alone means a lot, too." U of L athletic director Tom Jurich encourages his staff to "recruit and sign the best student athletes we can find, wherever they are in the world."

After all, he says, "Whenever we win, everybody's a Cardinal."

He believes this philosophy makes the program more diverse, more interesting and more competitive.

But foreign recruitment can be a complicated process, as witnessed by the Louisville men's basketball program that won the highly publicized battle for two of the nation's most sought-after prospects a year ago. It has yet to see either of the Nigerian-born players take the court.

There are mountains of forms to fill out, academic records to request and questions about amateurism rules in foreign nations, which tend to differ widely from those of the NCAA.

And, always, delays.

"It's at least a year-long, very complicated process," says men's tennis head coach Rex Ecarma. His team includes nine international students out of an 11-man roster.

But evidently the results make the effort worthwhile.

Ecarma's team (22­9) won the Cards' first-ever Conference-USA tennis title this year and earned a bid to the NCAA Championships for the second time in three years‹the first such bids for the U of L program. The Cards registered their best-ever national ranking (No. 36) in March. Ecarma was named C-USA's coach of the year while Joachim Lien, from Oslo, Norway, was named freshman of the year and a member of the league's first-team all-C-USA team.

Tvrtko Kujundzic, a junior from Zagreb, Croatia, joined Lien on the league's first team. He compiled a 24­19 record in singles as the No. 1 seed and moved up to No. 88 in ITA rankings. Kujundzic also combined with Lien for a 20­7 doubles' record, with the pair ranking as high as No. 51 nationally.

Sophomore Brent McCombe, a native of Victoria, Australia, became "Mr. Clutch" for the Cards last spring. A second-team all-C-USA choice, McCombe posted a team-best 30­8 singles' record and took all six of his matches in the C-USA tournament, including the decisive victory that clinched the Cards' 4­3 win over the University of Alabama-Birmingham for the title.

"Brent went from a reserve role player a year ago to a big-time clutch player this season. He embraced the game plan we had for him and took off with it," Ecarma says.

Coach Meg Peavy's women's tennis team has attracted several international players in recent years, too.

Nadia Karpol started it. The Moscow native lettered for the Cards in 1997, '98 and '99, setting an all-time U of L record for singles' wins in a season (38­8) in 1998. She stands second in all-time doubles' winning percentage behind Peavy's own .862.

Karpol graduated with a degree in business and is now completing her law degree in Russia. Most recently, Sheffield, England's Kelly Ford played for Peavy. She came to Louisville after lettering five years as a tennis player at Sheffield High, where she also lettered in field hockey, netball, rounders and track and field. She was the ladies doubles' Yorkshire Champion in 1993‹and also was honored with her school's math achievement award.

Her aspirations? To earn her doctorate and become a pilot.

The Academic Impetus

Education, not just sports, is the motivation for most of the foreign students, says volleyball coach Yelin.

"We spend a lot of time checking out the young women through the contacts we've developed over the years," he explains. "My last concern is what style of player they are. First is what kind of person, then what kind of student and finally what kind of player?'

These criteria are important, Yelin says, because leaving their homelands and coming to America is not easy.

"You wonder how they will handle the new language, the new culture, the academics and the loneliness. They have to be strong.

"Most are good enough to play professionally in their home countries," he adds. "Some can make tens of thousands of dollars. So there has to be more to it than that. Education has to be the No. 1 reason they come."

Yelin's system is obviously working. Volleyball consistently ranks among the top teams academically at U of L.

"We're proud of that as well as of the volleyball victories," he says.

Some critics suggest that it's much easier for coaches like Yelin to build good teams because of their contacts. But the diversity may present new challenges.

For one, building team chemistry when the players come from such different backgrounds can be difficult. But the players' youth and the friendships of their American counterparts help them learn to adapt fast.

"Something unexpected happens and they all smile and say, 'Welcome to America,' then we all laugh and go on about our business," Yelin explains.

Another major issue the international students and their families have to deal with is separation. It's one thing to see your child go off to college, but seeing them off to a foreign land?

So coaches have to make the right contacts, earn the trust of the athletes and their parents and anticipate situations that could leave the student feeling especially lonely, such as holidays or spring break when his or her teammates and friends may be gone.

This is the kind of team-building challenge that Denny Crum's staff will encounter this season for the first time. Assuming Nigerian Muhammed Lasege, a 4.0 GPA student, is finally cleared by the NCAA to play, the Cards will have four international students on their roster.

Not coincidentally, Crum's coaching staff includes Lexington native Vince Taylor, a Duke Blue Devil and graduate who went on to play and coach professionally in Italy, France and Belgium. His wife, Nathalie, was a television anchor in Brussels. So both can relate to what the newcomers will encounter this season.

With the cultural differences between Asians and Westerners, Yelin thinks the adjustment may be even more difficult for athletes like volleyball players Jing Ding and Bing Sun from Beijing. (Yelin also will have Sonja Percan from Pula, Croatia, and Anastasia Zaitseva of Moscow on his team this year.)

But that's how the university community can be so helpful, he adds-and where the support of teammates can make a difference.

"The best part of being an athlete is the companionship," says Percan, who was voted most outstanding hitter at the Junior World Championships in Europe each of the two summers previous to her signing with the Cards. Her high school, the Secondary School of Business, finished first in Croatia in 1998 and her club team finished first in the Junior Championship in 1999.

Now she's C-USA's co-freshman of the year and a second-team all-conference selection. Percan came to Louisville after Russian stars Sonya Gubaidulina and Marina Sinichenko earned major C-USA recognition. Gubaidulin, who is pursuing her master's degree at U of L, was the league's 1998 MVP while Sinichenko was freshman of the year in 1996 and tournament MVP in 1998.

Beyond Opportunity

Louisville also is attracting top talent in several other sports.

First-year head coach Mark Crabtree guided men's golf to a surprising fourth-place finish in the 2000 C-USA Tournament. In May, junior college standout Greg Garcia announced he would be transferring from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College. The native of Durban, South Africa, earned Junior College All-America honors in 1999 and helped his team to a runner-up finish at the national championships.

Women's golf head coach Kelly Meyers-named C-USA coach of the year in her first season at U of L-has four players hailing from outside the United States. In the team's debut year they placed second in the league's season-ending tournament.

Track-and-field coach Gene Weis features Canadians John Wawrysh of London, Ont., and Patricia Young from Owen Sound, Ont., in the throwing events. And Tony Colavecchia's men's soccer squad, which will move into its sparkling new stadium this fall, features a number of international stars from England and Canada, all of whom were championship players back home.

Jurich and the coaching staff point to the positives of having such talented players and, in most cases, such serious students on campus. But critics question relinquishing scholarship opportunities that U.S. citizens would otherwise have.

"It's beyond opportunity for a scholarship," Yelin counters. "It's a valuable thing for this country. "Having immigrants come here has been a way of life in the U.S. for 200 years and we can all learn a lot from it. People come here with aspirations of being better and that pushes us all to achieve."

It reminds Yelin of a breezy afternoon back in Miami when he took his child to a nearby park to play.

"There was my child, who spoke Russian, a Hispanic child and an Asian child," he recalls. "They couldn't speak the same language, but they played and laughed and had a great time.

"There's a lesson there.

"I tell our team, 'Don't try to find differences. Try to find something out about each athlete. Learn to live together and to help each other.'

"That's something we can carry with us for the rest of our lives."

Ron Steiner is editor and publisher of Louisville SportsReport and a regular UofL contributor. Photos: Sports Information